After summer sunburn, mind solar insolvencies

5 min
Catharina Hillenbrand-Saponar
Catharina Hillenbrand-Saponar Sector Advisor for Energy, Metals, Machinery & Equipment

· While oil and gas sector posted strong earnings on the back of higher commodity prices, performance for clean energy, especially solar, reflects regulatory concerns, especially in China 

· The number of large bankruptcies for solar companies should increase, especially in China because of rampant overcapacity and pricing issues, the end of subsidies, and the ongoing trade feud with the US


Great divide – the break-down of the oil/solar connection

The latest earnings season has shown some great divide between and within the various sectors within energy. The impact of rising commodity prices is far from uniform.

A large majority of companies in the oil & gas sector reporting rising revenues and earnings underscores the turnaround in the sector and positive commodity impact. It implies margin stability.

Conversely, clean energy is not    benefiting from the traditional positive oil price effect, ie improving volumes and earnings in silage with rising oil prices. While still more companies have reported rising earnings last quarter, the share of those companies is rapidly decreasing. In Q2, only 58% of companies in clean energy reported y/y rising Ebitda, down from 66% in Q4 17.

Figure 1  Energy quarterly earnings: number of companies reporting positive revenue and Ebitda growth

Source: Bloomberg and Euler Hermes, sectors based on BICS classification comprising a sample of 931 oil & gas companies and 210 clean energy companies (Q1 18)

Solar: Cloud over China

We expect the driver of this deterioration, regulatory change, to cause further deterioration of earnings growth and be a prime source of new risk in the clean energy sector.

As often in the past, the solar sector is the epicentre of volatility. In May 2018, the Chinese government announced the suspension of all subsidies for ground mounted solar parks in favour of competitive tenders, and a significant reduction in feed-in tariffs.

These measures reflect capacity build in line with the government’s 2020 200GW target, alongside a need for catch up on network infrastructure and a significant financing deficit.

It appears that Chinese policy may be shifting away from capacity build towards streamlining and optimising of investment, as witnessed by a strong focus on UHVDC (ultra high volume DC) network development. The coming about of these measures was already visible in Q1 and Q2 18 numbers.

Figures 2 and 3  Solar product prices and market growth

Source: Bloomberg, EPIA and Euler Hermes

But highly likely, the true significant impact of a market slowing from a volume of over 50GW to c30MW pa will be seen in Q3 and even more Q4 18, one of the peak quarters in the year for the sector. Solar module prices have declined in an accelerated fashion.


Risk of rising insolvencies

In a sector characterised by very thin margins – normalised through cycle Ebit margins for the leading manufacturers are in the region of 4% - and overcapacity, volume decline of the magnitude as above will not only lead to earnings decline but missed payments, payment delays lengthening beyond an already very high 127 days, and ultimately significant risk of insolvencies.

As a whole, we see chances of a rise in our major insolvencies in energy from 15 new cases ytd 2018, all of which outside the solar sector, as casualties may hit the radar screen later in the year and/or 2019.

The current change in Chinese regulation is big enough to count as one of the major step changes for the solar sector. In our view it could trigger yet another wave of restructuring and consolidation.

Overcapacity is a global matter, even though the bulk of production is situated in China.  Solar products are very mobile, easily shipped and major upset in one market – in this case the single most important in the world – tends to spill around the globe.

As the solar sector is very interlinked and global, the issue concerns not only the entire value chain, from polysilicon manufactures, through wafers, installers and the like, but also companies outside of China.

We therefore caution on solar companies on a global scale as well as certain areas within technology (factory automation/robotics) and speciality chemicals, equipment and services. It is worth noting that the EU ended import controls for Chinese solar panels as of end September 2018, thus Europe may be the next recipient of a wave of cut price Chinese product.

We have also already seen a pick-up in Chinese exports to the US, despite US tariffs. The 30% levy on panels is being offset by a 19% ytd decline in the global wholesale crystalline silicon module price. We estimate that US module     prices are currently around 25% below the levels immediately after the introduction of the 30% import tariff.

The intent of the tariffs was to save US solar module manufacturers from earnings pressure and bankruptcy risk. Chinese energy policy and market reality has completely counteracted that.

Consequently, we do see rising risk for US manufacturers. The same phenomenon also puts other manufacturers outside of China risk, chiefly Europe but also elsewhere. Nonetheless, we expect severe margin pressure and consolidation amongst Chinese operators. Capacity utilisation sub 70% cannot support a long term sustainable business model. Even with exports, the sector is heading that way. US exports may sooth, but annual demand of c 10GW for the whole of the US does not even cover half of the shortfall in China, even if flows are diverted as they will be. The industry is characterised by very violent cycles and this might be a major downturn.

Figure 5  Major insolvencies energy


Source: Euler Hermes